‘Kol dichfin, kol ditzrich’: All with special needs

Participants of ‘Darkaynu’ post-high school program may have special needs, not needy; full participants this Seder.

High school students (photo credit: Courtesy)
High school students
(photo credit: Courtesy)
At the elongated study desk, the two young women are discussing Passover and the Haggada, the text read at the Passover Seder. “Why is so much of the Haggada written in Aramaic and not Hebrew?” asks one. Her study partner isn’t sure, and flips through the commentaries in the book they’re both using. They think of examples in Aramaic. “ Ha lahma anya – this is the bread of affliction,” says one of them.
I can’t help thinking of the words “ kol dichfin, kol ditzrich ” – the poignant “All who are hungry, come in and eat; all who are needy come in and make Passover” that is read in the same passage.
It’s early evening at Midreshet Lindenbaum, one of the most prestigious study halls for women acquiring advanced Jewish education. Tall Talmud tractates and other primary sources dominate the tabletop book stands, but a few English-language Jewish classics like Lonely Man of Faith , If You were God, and Genesis and the Big Bang are tucked into the bookshelves too. The brainiest graduates of the world’s top Jewish high schools compete for spots in this program, hoping to fine-tune their Jewish study skills before heading to Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University.
Two weeks before Passover, nearly everyone is focused on the upcoming festival. Almost every desk has a copy of Pesahim , the third tractate of Seder Moed, the section of the dense compendium of Jewish thought that deals with Passover. As in all religious study halls, most studying is conducted in hevrutot, pairs of students working together to unravel the meaning and significance of complex texts. At the back of the room, I spot a famous teacher studying one-on-one with a lucky student.
But tonight I’ve come to eavesdrop at the tables where one partner is a young woman in the regular program of Midreshet Lindenbaum and the other is a member of the Darkaynu (“our path”) program, geared for high school graduates with special needs. Nearly every weekday, pairs of students meet to study in the hall. I’ve chanced on these young women during women’s night at the Jerusalem Pool and admired the sweetness of the atmosphere among the volunteers and the participants, despite severe physical, developmental and emotional challenges. I met them again in their orange T-shirts toward the end of the Jerusalem Marathon, valiantly walking hand in hand. The same volunteers and counselors who swim and run with them make this post-high school year in Israel for teens with special needs not only possible but sensational. There’s a parallel program for young men at the Har Etzion Yeshiva in Alon Shvut in Gush Etzion.
The study pairs I join are all focused on Passover, too. They’re using Haggadot with English translations of the Hebrew and Aramaic. A few pairs are reviewing Seder basics, while others are tackling tougher questions like the one above. Several of the 11 women with special needs attended public school, while others went to yeshivot with special education programs like the New Jersey-based Sinai schools for children with learning and developmental disabilities. Still others were fully mainstreamed.
At one table, sits a Darkaynu student who is legally blind. Her study partner is doing all the reading, reviewing the 10 plagues. They’re troubled by the English translation “vermin,” which could suit several plagues. Another young woman can recite whole paragraphs of the Haggada by heart but is fretting about her mother’s upcoming visit to be with her for Passover. “I’m worried about her coming. She treats me like a baby,” she says.
At another table, the subject is why some Sephardi Jews eat rice on Passover. At still another, they’re talking about the Four Sons. My stomach twists. How are they going to get through “the simple son,” I worry. But the pair sails through it, seeming not to notice that for one of them this term might have significant resonance. They’re comfortable with each other. After all, they’ve been studying together since September.
In addition to study, the participants volunteer in food preparation for the elderly, kindergartens and school offices. They go on hikes and spend Shabbatot with adoptive families. They get more supervision than participants in most other programs, but they have never had to deal with the alcohol or drug problems that have plagued some year-in-Israel groups.
UNTIL DARKAYNU started 11 years ago, special-ed students would listen with envy as their siblings weighed the pros and cons of the many year-long programs they could attend in Israel after high school. They would have to stay home.
The initiative for Darkaynu began with the sensitivity of two women who were saddened when a friend’s sister with Down syndrome couldn’t find a program in Israel that would accept her.
Keren Gluch and Ilana Goldscheider, two religious special-ed experts, were behind the initiative. Both Americans, they’ve since made aliya.
“I was determined that we could find a way for our friend’s sister to come to Israel for a year, but Ilana always thinks bigger. She’s a program creator,” says Gluch.
Goldscheider had started and run a bunk for special-ed kids at Camp Morasha in Pennsylvania.
They approached Tova Rhein, the head of Midreshet Lindenbaum, and got an enthusiastic response from her. Approval followed from Ohr Torah Stone and its chancellor, Jerusalem Post columnist Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.
Over 100 young people have completed the program so far.
Most of the extra effort goes into interviewing and training the volunteers and counselors, says Gluch. While other gap-year programs may have difficulty finding counselors, this one has an abundance of goodhearted, highly motivated candidates, she says. Some are drawn from second-year National Service volunteers. Others, like Rachaeli Samuel from Toronto, are students in the advanced program at Midreshet Lindenbaum. Samuel felt so enriched by the hevruta with Darkaynu girls that she stayed an extra year to work with them.
When I got home, I checked the commentaries on the “Kol dichfin/ kol ditzrich” passage in the half-dozen Haggadot we have. Significantly, Rabbi Riskin’s commentary lingers on the distinction between the hungry and the needy. The needy, he says, are those who have “fallen beneath the wheels of our increasingly demanding and abrasive society.” The experience of the Seder, he says, provides food for both the body and the spirit.
The young Jews of Darkaynu may have special needs, but engulfed in this caring program, they are not needy.  They’ll be full participants at this year’s Seder, celebrating Redemption with all of our people.
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.